Norfolk Southern, the company involved in the Ohio freight train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals, refused to send representatives to a Wednesday night town hall meeting to provide local residents with information. The company claimed it feared a “growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event,” but it looks like one more effort to avoid accountability for the disaster.
At the meeting, residents booed and laughed when officials assured them that everything was fine and they faced no risks from drinking local well water or breathing the air, which still smells after vinyl chloride was released in a controlled burn to prevent an explosion. But there was no threat of violence.
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Officials say that contaminants are not showing up in the village wells and that the amount of chemicals in the air is not dangerous, despite the odors. Local residents can be forgiven for being suspicious of that given the thousands of dead fish in area streams and rivers, as well as physical complaints some are suffering.
“We all have red rashes, loose stool, very congested, eyes burning, everything smells," according to one woman who returned home after the evacuation order was lifted. "I’ve been having terrible headaches.”
Norfolk Southern submitted a remediation plan to the Ohio EPA, and has put $1 million into a fund for the community. For people whose houses are covered in ash, who are worried about their health and their economic futures, that doesn’t sound like enough. Making things right after the fact isn’t the only area where Norfolk Southern is falling short. The company is dismissing concerns raised by workers and experts that the length of the train and inadequate routine inspection may have contributed to the derailment.
Workers say the derailment wasn't the first time the train had broken down, and that its 151-car length and 18,000-ton weight aren’t safe.
"We shouldn't be running trains that are 150 car lengths long," one employee told CBS News. "There should be some limitations to the weight and the length of the trains. In this case, had the train not been 18,000 tons, it's very likely the effects of the derailment would have been mitigated." A Norfolk Southern spokesperson waved that off, saying that this was a shorter version of the train that previously did that route. This is part of a trend toward longer trains with smaller crews. According to the Government Accountability Office, average freight train lengths have increased by 25% since 2008. Meanwhile, the advent of “precision scheduled railroading” over the past decade has reduced railroad maintenance crews by 40%, which has led to shorter inspection times.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, an overheated wheel bearing is the likely direct cause of the derailment.
“The longer the train, the heavier the train, the more wear and tear it puts on the actual rail itself, as well as the equipment,” Jared Cassity, a legislative director for SMART, a major rail union, told Politico. “We’re seeing more wear and tear. We’re seeing more unintended train separations, which is where the train breaks apart.” Cassity also noted that the incredibly long trains can make communication between workers difficult: “Our radios aren’t built for the distances that these trains are built for.”
Sarah Feinberg, a head of the Federal Railroad Administration under President Barack Obama, echoed concerns about train length.
"When I was FRA administrator, I was not happy with the lengths of the trains, and they were 80 or 90 cars long," Feinberg told CBS. "This train was 50% longer." And this is the kind of train the freight rail industry is pushing as standard.
On Thursday, Sen. Sherrod Brown called on Gov. Mike DeWine to officially declare a disaster in East Palestine and get all possible federal resources to help with recovery. After delaying, DeWine did on Thursday finally ask the White House for federal resources.
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